5 March 2014

Focus on Navy's structural reforms

Manoj Joshi
04 March 2014

There is some strange logic doing the rounds these days. It is that Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, being the Flag officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command, is somehow "responsible" for the alleged spate of accidents that have afflicted the western naval fleet. By this reasoning, accepting the resignation of Navy chief Admiral D K Joshi was the right step, even though Defence Minister A K Antony has been roundly criticised for accepting his resignation with the alacrity that he did, without waiting for any inquiry, or a formal consultation with the Cabinet Committee on Security. A news report has suggested that a cable that caught fire may have caused the INS Sindhuratna accident that killed two officers. The responsibility for this does not rest with either Admiral Joshi or Sinha.

Because, if the former Navy chief D K Joshi and Shekhar Sinha are somehow culpable, so is the entire chain of command downward and upward - the Flag Officer who actually commands the western fleet, the Flag Officer Maharashtra Gujarat area, Commodore commanding submarines (west) and the Sindhuratna's captain. Upwards, it leads to the now departed Chief of Naval Staff, and in parallel to the the Joint Secretary (Navy), the Additional Secretary, Defence Secretary, and then, to the Defence Minister, Prime Minister and, of course, the Supreme Commander of the armed force, the President of India.

Clearly, this would be an absurd construction. The reason why it is being played out is because people fail to differentiate between assuming "moral responsibility" for an accident, and "culpability" or even "constructive responsibility" for it. Neither Admiral Joshi nor Sinha, or for that matter the PM, RM and the President are culpable for the accident, whose causes are yet to be determined. They may share constructive responsibility, though, whether it requires their resignation is another matter. In the past ten years, some 110 Indian Air Force aircrafts have crashed, some due to human error, others due to manufacturing or maintenance defects. During Operation Parakram, hundreds of soldiers died, even though we didn't have a war. Many were killed by defective mines and fuses. But no one took responsibility, either constructive or moral.

Admiral Joshi has insisted on taking moral responsibility and that is to his credit, but it is a deeply personal decision.

He was the one who insisted on the removal of the captain of the INS Talwar after it hit an unlit fishing boat off Mumbai a month or so ago. He has always set high standards, and he probably feels that he needs to live up to it.

Navy accidents: Who is to blame?

P K Ghosh
01 March 2014

The most silent of the three armed forces, the Indian Navy has been part of the screaming headlines of the media for nearly a year now, mostly for all wrong reasons. While the good news of achievements like the largely indigenous nuclear submarine Arihantreactor going critical and the launching of the Indian Aircraft Carrier (IAC1) Vikrant have been relatively obscured, but as is the wont, the negative portrayals have effectively created headlines. 

Events highlighting the lack of professional approaches like accidents along with issues of moral turpitude of naval officers have been in the forefront. It is felt that many of these reports of related incidents have been hyped by the media and more importantly have dented the core of a proud and professional naval force. 

Additionally, the current discourse debates the erosion of navy's aspirations of achieving blue water capacity and the attendant responsibility as the security provider of the Indian ocean region . After all, a blue water navy status is not only a reflection of its capable inventory of platforms but also the mind set. Given the current unfolding of events many are inclined to believe that the Indian Navy needs to develop both. 

The latest in the series of mishaps, that led to the unprecedented resignation on moral grounds of the forthright and honest Naval chief Admiral D K Joshi for the accident on board Sindhuratna, a Kilo class submarine, has raised more questions rather than provide answers as to who should ultimately be held accountable for such losses. This accident led to the death of two officers and injured eight sailors. 

Earlier, in August 2013, an explosion led to the sinking of Sindhurakshak alongside the jetty, leading to a loss of precious 18 lives. Additionally, the media has brought out that there have been as many as ten incidents of operational lapses and accidents, in recent times, involving naval ships and submarines that have come under intense focus. 

In a reflection of the resignation of the Union Railway Minister Lal Bhadur Shastri way back in 1956 due to a train accident that claimed 144 lives, the Navy chief's resignation was unprecedented. The Government, unused to receiving resignations on moral grounds, showed unusual alacrity in accepting it, leading credence to the accusation that they were on the lookout for a "scapegoat" for the rash increase in accidents. The question remains as who is really accountable for the current sorry state of affairs. 

Since the accusation of numerous accidents by naval ships and submarines has been brought about by the media, it merits deeper introspection. 

Each of these accidents are distinctly different in magnitude and many are likely to occur in the normal operation of ships and submarines and should not cause unusual alarm. For instance, a ship touching the jetty while coming alongside in adverse conditions, or for that matter a sonar dome being scraped during an exercise. Some of the grounding incidents can be ascribed to the fact that the Mumbai harbour, despite its silting rates, was not appropriately dredged for long due to lack of financial approval and penny pinching. Despite these short comings, many a commanding officer has been removed from command for the commissions and omissions. These administrative actions are double wedged swords and if used excessively could result in Commanding officers preferring to "play safe" rather than take legitimate initiatives and calculated risks which is a dire necessity in any aspect of naval operations. 

India’s Growing Urban Poverty Crisis

India’s efforts to fight urban poverty have been lacking. 

March 04, 2014

The end of February saw the release of another round of disappointing figures on India’s economy. In the final quarter of 2013, India’s economy grew by 4.7 percent, the fifth consecutive quarter of sub-5 percent growth. Compared with the ailing economics of Europe, India’s growth rate appears positively bullish. But 4.7 percent is far below the 8 percent growth rate that India’s government says it needs to combat the country’s chronic development challenges. As India heads towards a landmark election – in which the government will almost certainly change hands – this dire economic performance casts a long shadow.

The incumbent UPA government, a coalition of left-leaning parties, has long championed an “inclusive” growth model. But its failure to ensure that the benefits of growth have “trickled down” to the poor is well established. When adjusted for variations in the cost of living, 32.7 percent of India’s population live below the international extreme poverty line of $1.25 per day. India is home to a third of the world’s poor, a third of the world’s slave population, and on a host of other social and development indicators it continues to slip further and further behind other developing countries.

Poverty lines are not entirely reliable measures of deprivation, instead they allow for long-term trends to be traced. According to figures compiled by the World Bank and McKinsey, since the 1980s India has only lifted 35 million people out of extreme poverty. In China the figure is 678 million. India’s poor poverty-reduction rate is matched by rapid increases in income inequality. In January India’s Business Standard reported income inequality in urban areas across a third of India’s states reached its highest point in 2011-12 since 1973-74.

In theory widening gaps between the rich and the poor should encourage the latter to innovate and compete and because of this, economists have tended to neglect it as a developmental concern. But this is now changing. As Christine Lagarde, chairperson of the International Monetary Fund said last month in a speech to the World Economic Forum that inequality “harms the pace and sustainability of growth over the long term.”


March 4, 2014

From an American point of view, two campaigns have defined the conflict in Afghanistan – which the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel describes as the “two wars.” For most Americans, the one in focus is ISAF’s counterinsurgency campaign, which represents an extension of the initial revenge-seeking gut reaction against the September 11 attacks. This campaign produced most of the direct costs to Americans – over 2,300 American casualties and a half trillion dollars spent by the American taxpayer in the past twelve years. The second conflict is the CIA’s special operations “shadow war” in the mountains and valleys of Pakistan, a low-visibility war by intelligence services and special operators. This conflict sought the “knockout blow” against Al Qaida senior leaders while, in actuality, pursuing a strategy of incremental symmetric defeat of the Al Qaida and Taliban organizations through drone strikes and frequent nighttime raids.

Yet, another war – a third “war” between the Pakistani state and a metastasized jihadist network – threatens the viability of the Pakistani state. Essentially an insurgency fought principally between Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Pakistani security services, this conflict, although linked to the first and second wars, remains almost entirely out of sight of most Americans. According to the BBC and some Pakistani officials, the conflict has claimed upwards of 3,000 Pakistani military and 30,000-35,000 civilian lives since 9/11. In addition, the Pakistani finance ministry assessed in 2011 that this war has cost the country $67 billion, noting that massive expenditures on displaced people, and the halving of investment-to-GDP ratio from 22.5% in 2007 to 13.4% in 2011. Threats to infrastructure, such as pipelines, further exacerbate the effect in an energy-poor country such as Pakistan.

It is necessary to understand this ‘third war’ to fully comprehend the risks of the U.S.’ seemingly inevitable disengagement from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan’s internal war, and the potential for militants to trigger a regional escalation, threaten not only Pakistan’s stability, but also the gains made in Afghanistan and the security of the volatile South Asian region. It is within this larger regional context, not a narrow context focused only on terrorism, that U.S. policymakers should consider the consequences of disengagement from the region.

Talks with Taliban: war by other means

March 3, 2014

Talks with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have occupied the centre-stage in Pakistani politics today. However, these talks are not new. The state of Pakistan has had so many deals with the militants in the past, such as the Shakai Peace Agreement in 2004 with Nek Muhammad; the Sararogha Peace Agreement in 2005 with Baitullah Mehsud; the Swat Agreement in 2008 with Mullah Fazlullah. Nevertheless, all these talks were followed by military operations. During 2008-2009, for example, the army had launched operations like Operation Sirat-i-Mustaqeem (Righteous Path) in Khyber, Operation Rah-i-Rast (Thunder Storm) in Swat, and) Operation Rah-i-Nijat (Path to Salvation) in South Waziristan. While such operations succeeded in pushing back the Taliban advance, they could neither reverse the trend of Talibanization in Pakistan, nor demolish the terror infrastructure in the tribal terrain.

The ground realities are different now. The situation in Pakistan today is very fragile. Despite the progress on the democratic front, there is a sense of helplessness on how to tackle the menace of terrorism. Unlike in the past, Islamabad appears quite weak vis-à-vis Taliban while it keeps chanting its commitment to talks with TTP, despite the provocation and retaliation from the army.

At the moment, the TTP has succeeded in dividing the political elite in Pakistan. It is competing with the Pakistani state at various levels—first and foremost, at the psychological level. Over the years, it has managed to induce ideological sympathy for its Islamist agenda among certain groups and instilled fear among others. Thus, the society seems to be divided into two groups— one which empathizes with TTP and provides political and ideological support to it, and the other wants to fight it, but feels demoralized by the timid policies of the government. In all, the people are getting resigned to the possibility of either a TTP takeover or greater Talibanisation of Pakistan.

Since the last one decade, people have been fed with the conspiracy theory that TTP is a reaction against the US presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s support to war on terror. The truth lies somewhere else. Afghan Taliban existed even before 9/11 and there were sympathisers of Taliban in the tribal areas of Pakistan, some of whom had joined the Taliban army in its efforts to establish control over whole of Afghanistan. Following the US attack on Afghanistan, the Pakistani contingent came back home to roost. Within few years they called themselves TTP. These forces have gone from strength to strength, primarily because of the inability of the state to evolve a coherent and consistent strategy to handle this menace. The result has been obvious; the TTP has declared Pakistan army its principal enemy and killed more than 6000 security personnel so far.

Since the latest round of talks began, after offer of fig leaf by Nawaz administration on February 9, the TTP has not stopped its terrorist attacks. They have launched more than 20 attacks in which over 120 have been killed.[fn]http://www.thenews.com.pk/article-138381-Taliban-present-three-demands-for-ceasefire- [/fn] The Army which has been asked to keep restraint and support peace talks is losing its patience, in the face of growing attacks on its men, the latest being the beheading of about 23 Frontier Corps soldiers, who were under TTP custody.[fn]http://www.dawn.com/news/1086243/army-maintains-its-considered-silence[/fn]

Train Station Rampage Further Strains Ethnic Relations in China

MARCH 3, 2014

KUNMING, China — Even with the objects of his ire in earshot, the landlord barely lowered his voice to describe his Uighur neighbors, who also happened to be his tenants.

“During the day they look like human beings, but at night they are thieves and thugs,” he said as a group of elderly women in traditional head scarves drank tea in the courtyard of his building. “Even the police are afraid of them. We all hate them, but there’s nothing to be done about it.”Continue reading the main story

It is fair to say that relations have never been easy between the ethnic Han who dominate this vast nation and the Uighur minority whose traditional homeland is in China’s far western borderlands. But since a group of identically dressed assailants rampaged through the Kunming Railway Station here in southwestern China on Saturday, killing at least 29 people and wounding 143 with long knives and daggers, the official narrative of a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups living in harmony is being tested by the news that the killers were from the western region of Xinjiang.Photo

Dozens of victims who survived a knife attack by a group of masked assailants were being treated at the No. 1 People’s Hospital in Kunming, China. CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Monday evening, the state-run news agency Xinhua said the police had arrested three more assailants, in addition to a fourth who had already been arrested and four others who were killed at the train station. The Ministry of Public Security said a “terrorist gang of eight members” was responsible for the attack, Xinhua said.

Until the ministry made its announcement, officials had not made any mention of the attackers’ ethnicity, but there seemed to be little doubt here on the streets of Kunming that those responsible for the slaughter were Uighurs.


March 3, 2014 

The PDF can be downloaded at this link:

http://www.rsis.edu.sg/ publications/Perspective/ RSIS0432014.pdf

RSIS presents the following commentary The South China Sea Disputes: Formula for a Paradigm Shift – A Rejoinder by Robert C Beckman and Clive H Schofield. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at RSISPublication@ntu.edu.sg. Republication is allowed subject to prior permission from the Editor.

No. 043/2014 dated 3 March 2014

The South China Sea Disputes:
Formula for a Paradigm Shift

- A Rejoinder

By Robert C Beckman and Clive H Schofield


Our proposal that China bring its maritime claims into conformity with international law and UNCLOS in particular has been critiqued by Professor Raul ‘Pete’ Pedrozo of the US Naval War College as “problematic” and “counterproductive”. We beg to differ. While he offers an interesting perspective and is entitled to his own views of China’s policy on the South China Sea, we believe that several of his points warrant a rejoinder.


IN HIS response to our joint commentary, Professor Raul ‘Pete’ Pedrozo of the US Naval War College articulates six reasons why our proposal “will not work”. The first two points raised are the assertion that China has no legitimate claim to sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and that our proposal “rewards Beijing for its illegal occupation of the Paracel and Spratly Islands”.

These comments disregard the fact that we intentionally left issues of territorial sovereignty out of our proposed formula for a paradigm shift in the South China Sea disputes. Thus, we did not address the merits of China’s claim (or those of any other claimant State) to sovereignty over any disputed islands in the South China Sea. Further, we did not suggest that any of the other claimants should acquiesce to China’s claim to sovereignty over the islands.

Will China Help Stabilize Ukraine?

March 4, 2014

China has remained largely silent concerning the specter of Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Beijing has neither voiced support for Moscow, nor has it urged restraint. However, China is not indifferent. It has interests both in its relations with Russia and, more importantly, in the future stability of Ukraine. Washington should encourage China to play a more active part in bringing the crisis to a peaceful resolution.

The only official word from Beijing on the conflict has been through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a press conference on Sunday, the MFA spokesman reaffirmed China’s commitment to Ukraine’s “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” and called for a peaceful resolution of the situation, “with all sides respecting international law.” No specific mention was made of Russia or its military presence in the country.

China appears to be weighing three sets of interests in Ukraine. First, Beijing has no desire to unnecessarily complicate its relations with Moscow. Russia is a useful partner for China in areasranging from energy and arms cooperation, joint positions on regional challenges such as Iran, Syria and North Korea, and broader opposition to perceived excesses of U.S. “hegemony” around the world. China also likely prefers not to lose the positive momentum gained from President Xi Jinping’s attendance at the Sochi Olympics last month.

Indeed, the importance of Ukraine to Russia has not been lost on Chinese observers. For instance, Wang Haiyun, a senior advisor with a PLA-affiliated think tank, remarked that Ukraine is a “core interest” for Russia, and asserted that China should strengthen consultations with Russia on the matter.

Second, China has an interest in the long-term stability of Ukraine. In particular, Beijing has incentives to prevent a chaotic situation that would undermine its economic and strategic relations with Kiev. China is Ukraine’s second-largest trading partner after Russia, with total trade in 2013 valued at $7.3 billion. China also has major stakes in Ukraine’s agricultural sector, with a September deal reportedly granting a PRC state-owned enterprise access to up to five percent of Ukraine’s arable land.

In addition, China’s relations with Ukraine deepened in December with a “strategic partnership” signed by Xi and then president Viktor Yanukovych. This agreement involved a five-year, $30 billion plan to boost PRC investment in areas including infrastructure, aviation and aerospace, energy, agriculture, and finance. As part of this, China extended “security guarantees” to Ukraine. Despite Yanukovych’s departure, China’s MFA last week reaffirmed that the strategic partnership and its provisions were still in effect.

China Intentions Unclear on Weakening Currency

What is behind the recent slide in the renminbi? There are several possible answers. 

March 03, 2014

It has been a confusing week for those observing China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), trying to work out what the institution is thinking. During the last seven days, the main surprise was a dramatic slide in the renminbi (RMB) against the U.S. dollar, which created some heated debate about what was going on and why. Meanwhile, an apparent softening of central bank pressure on the money markets seemed to suggest a change from previous bouts of tightness squeezing.

Having appreciated fairly steadily for months, around February 18 the RMB began to creep downwards versus the dollar. Over seven days, the currency fell from what had become a fairly regular level of 6.06RMB to the dollar, down to a weaker 6.09RMB. This slide continued last week, and the currency closed the week out at 6.145RMB. The depreciation represents one of the fastest slides since the end of the full peg in 2005.

China’s financial system is becoming increasingly difficult to manage in a smooth and constant manner. The steady appreciation in the RMB over recent months (indeed years) has made any trade betting that benefits from the phenomenon a fairly “safe bet.” Market players across the globe have sought access to RMB assets or products benefiting from RMB appreciation as they cash in on the currency’s climb – which in turn puts further appreciation pressure on the latter.

Some of the investment products being used are complex and potentially volatile derivatives involving margin trading. Many will remember the huge currency hedging losses racked up by CITIC Pacific back in 2008 involving “targeted redemption forwards,” and it seems these have increasingly been used by Chinese firms tospeculate on continued RMB appreciation.

A steadily increasing RMB also creates an opportunity for Chinese companies to borrow foreign currency (at low foreign interest rates), and then move the proceeds into RMB to take advantage of China’s higher interest rates. One of the methods to move such funds back into China is to “mis-invoice” exports, as was going on throughout late 2012 and early 2013. It seems this practice may be reviving. Borrowing this way creates a balance sheet currency mismatch that could be very destabilizing in the event of further RMB weakness – foreign currency loans (liabilities) become more and more expensive to service as the RMB falls (asset side).

Myanmar Conflict Alert: A Risky Census

4 March 2014

According to the International Crisis Group, Myanmar’s upcoming nationwide census could endanger its political transformation. To prevent this from happening, Yangon needs to delete some of the more divisive demographic questions from the survey, at least for the time being.

Prepared by: International Crisis Group

The nationwide census planned for 30 March to 10 April 2014 risks inflaming tensions at a critical moment in Myanmar’s peace process and democratic transition. The census process should be urgently amended to focus only on key demographic questions, postponing those which are needlessly antagonistic and divisive – on ethnicity, religion, citizenship status – to a more appropriate moment. By doing so, the government, United Nations and donors can demonstrate that they are sensitive to the serious risks presented by the census as currently conceived, and that they are willing to respond to the deep reservations expressed by many important groups in the country.

While the collection of accurate demographic data is crucial for national planning and development – it has been over 30 years since the last census – the coming census, consisting of 41 questions, is overly complicated and fraught with danger. Myanmar is one of the most diverse countries in the region, and ethnicity is a complex, contested and politically sensitive issue, in a context where ethnic communities have long believed that the government manipulates ethnic categories for political purposes. In addition to navigating its political transition from authoritarian military rule to democratic governance, Myanmar is struggling to end decades-old, multiple and overlapping ethnic conflicts in its peripheries. At the same time, recent months have seen an increasingly virulent Burman-Buddhist nationalist movement lead to assaults on Muslim minority communities. A census which risks further increasing these tensions is ill-advised.

There are many flaws in the ethnic classification system being used for the census, which is based on an old and much-criticised list of 135 groups produced in the 1980s. In some cases, this creates too many subdivisions (the small Chin group, for example, is divided into 53 categories, many of them village or clan names, which has no justification on ethno-linguistic grounds). In others, groups are lumped together who have separate ethnic identities (for example, several groups in Shan State such as the Palaung, Lahu and Intha are included as subdivisions of the Shan ethnicity when they are not related in any way ethnically or linguistically). A number of these groups – including ethnic political parties and ethnically based armed organisations – have issued statements highly critical of the census, some demanding a postponement and reclassification based on consultation with ethnic communities.

Putin Can’t Stop

MARCH 3, 2014

Even cynics like to feel moral. Even hard-eyed men who play power politics need to feel that their efforts are part of a great historic mission. So as he has been throwing his weight around the world, Vladimir Putin has been careful to quote Russian philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries like Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin.

Putin doesn’t only quote these guys; he wants others to read them. As Maria Snegovaya pointed out recently in The Washington Post, the Kremlin recently assigned three philosophic books to regional governors: Berdyaev’s “The Philosophy of Inequality,” Solovyov’s “Justification of the Good” and Ilyin’s “Our Tasks.”

Mark Springfield, IL

Is this the same Putin who recently wrote an editorial in The New York Times warning it's dangerous for any nation to regard itself as exceptional?


Putin was personally involved in getting Ilyin’s remains re-buried back in Russian soil. In 2009, Putin went to consecrate the grave himself. The event sent him into a nationalistic fervor. “It’s a crime when someone only begins talking about the separation of Russia and the Ukraine,” he said on that day.

To enter into the world of Putin’s favorite philosophers is to enter a world full of melodrama, mysticism and grandiose eschatological visions. “We trust and are confident that the hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness,” Ilyin wrote.

Three great ideas run through this work. The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.

These philosophers often argued that the rationalistic, materialistic West was corrupting the organic spiritual purity of Russia. “The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia,” Ilyin wrote, “Having lost our bond with God and the Christian tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism.”

You can hear echoes of this moralistic strain in Putin’s own speeches, especially when he defends his regime’s attitude toward gays and the role of women. Citing Berdyaev, he talks about defending traditional values to ward off moral chaos. He says he is defending the distinction between good and evil, which has been lost in the outside world.

Crimea: Russia is harvesting the seeds sown in the 1990s

And what it means for strategists

This post was provided by Jeremy Kotkin, a US Army strategist and professional devil’s advocate. The views expressed in this piece are his alone and do not represent the US Army or the Department of Defense.

This week the Russian Federation, for all intents and purposes, invaded a sovereign country. As difficult as interpretations of the Budapest Memorandum, OSCE convention, and other aspects of international law and norm can be to define, there can be no mistake; Ukraine’s territorial integrity was unilaterally violated and there must be a response. Figuring out the suitable, feasible, and acceptable response must occur and it must occur quickly if it is to have the intended effect. But the decision making process in Washington, Brussels, Kiev, and Strasbourg must be tempered and not reactionary. It must not give in to the calls to conflate, unknowingly or intently, the Budapest Memorandum with NATO’s Article 5. It must not, as ADM(ret) Stavridis or current sitting members of the Obama administration would have it, lash out with punitive and largely unproductive measures or worse yet, counterproductive to longer term strategic interests. Primarily however, rational strategy, both diplomatic and military if need be, must understand history, both recent and older. We must understand what has brought us to the precipice again in Europe and what we can yet still do about it.

The hopefully not-pending Ukrainian-Russian war would be a quick, one-sided show of force ostensibly conceived and responded to by both belligerents in order to protect their own immediate national and regional interests. It would look a lot like the Georgia conflict of 2008. The reality however goes beyond the propaganda (heavy, on both sides) and mainstream media reporting and uncovers issues beyond the tactical and operational context. The causes for the conflict go far beyond early March 2014 and in fact have more to do with a Russia-US context than a Ukrainian one.Unidentified armed men patrol outside of Simferopol airport, on February 28, 2014. (Source: AFP PHOTO / VIKTOR DRACHEV)

Crimea River

Why We Care About Ukraine, and Why it Doesn’t Matter

The United States cares deeply and honestly about what is happening in Ukraine. But it doesn't matter.

Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit Kyiv, the capital of beleaguered Ukraine, on Tuesday in a show of support for the new government there and to poke a finger in Russia’s eye.A full set of Kinglake’sInvasion of the Crimea is available at Second Story Books in Washington, DC. For all you new Ukraine experts. (Photo: Instagram/Katie Putz)

There are certainly more nuanced ways to view the visit, but the truth of the matter is that the United States cares about what is happening in Crimea and Ukraine. Whether you are of the opinion that America is facing the specter of its own deterioration, reaping the bitter fruits of successfully pulling the world up by its boot-straps, coming to grips with a failure to squash bugs of oppression before they spawn, or itching to throw a long-held Cold War right hook; the bottom line is that the world still expects the United States to do something.

Arnold Wolfers argued in 1952 that “national interest” and “national security” were normative, and naturally ambiguous, terms. Little has changed in the intervening 62 years, as debates continue to echo in hallowed halls and ivory towers on what constitutes an “interest” and what should be done in the name of “security.”

Kiev Calling

This post was provided by Robert C. Rasmussen and originally ran on the Center for International Maritime Security blog. Robert is a graduate of the MA International Relations program at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, and the CAS Security Studies program with SU’s Institute for National Security & Counterterrorism. He has served as a Fellow with the New York State Senate, and has interned with National Defense University’s Center for Complex Operations, and the U.S. Military Academy’s Network Science Center. He also serves as a Sergeant with the New York State Guard. The views in this article do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the New York State Senate, or the NYS Division of Military & Naval Affairs.

“I saw the ravages of the famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine- hordes of families in rags begging at the railway stations, the women lifting up to the compartment windows their starving brats, which, with dumbstruck limbs, big cadaverous heads and puffed bellies, looked like embryos out of alcohol bottles.”- Arthur Koestler (The God that Failed)

Background and History

Ukraine has enjoyed true independence from Russia for only a short period of time in its history with the establishment of a republic after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991. For its entire history prior, it has been a vassal of Russian imperialists. Even the etymology of Ukraine translates roughly to Borderlands.[1] Through Russian and Soviet history, Ukrainian plains and farmland have served as a strategic breadbasket, with wars for control of the territory being fought not only by the Russians/Soviets, but Cossacks, Ruthenians (ancestors of modern Ukrainians), Poles, Lithuanians, Turks, Tartars, Swedes, Austro-Hungarians, and Germans.

The boundaries of the region of Ukraine through history are exactly what can be expected for a borderland… they are fuzzy. They have shifted east and west, north and south, with populations shifting over centuries, but with a center of gravity focused on a Ukrainian people. It was in the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 that Ukraine got its first glimpse of independence. Three powers emerged in the territory- the Organization for the Ukrainian Nation (OUN), the Cossack Hetmanate of Ukraine with the mandate of an imperial fiefdom, and the Bolshevik-associated Directorate of Ukraine. Ultimately in the Russian Civil War it was the Directorate that won the fight in Ukraine, establishing the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1919, and was formally admitted to the USSR in 1922.[2]

It was under the rule of the USSR and Joseph Stalin from 1932-1933 that this breadbasket faced the extreme measures that Russians would go to in order to ensure political domination. During the Holodomor (Death by Hunger), the Soviet government diverted food deemed “surplus” to other parts of the USSR, causing the deaths of somewhere between seven and twelve million Ukrainians.[3] The official Soviet census in 1926 showed a population of 29,018,817, with an estimated growth rate of 2.65%. By the time the next census was taken in 1939, there should have been a population of 40,770,506, however there was only a population of 30,946,218. That is a loss of over nine million people.[4]Connecticut Holodomor Awareness Committee


Putin Smashes Washington’s Cocoon

A Politico report calls it “a crisis that no one anticipated.” The Daily Beast, reporting on Friday’s US intelligence assessment that “Vladimir Putin’s military would not invade Ukraine,” quotes a Senate aide claiming that “no one really saw this kind of thing coming.”

Op-eds from all over the legacy press this week helped explained why. Through the rose tinted lenses of a media community deeply convinced that President Obama and his dovish team are the masters of foreign relations, nothing poor Putin did could possibly derail the stately progress of our genius president. There were, we were told, lots of reasons not to worry about Ukraine. War is too costly for Russia’s weak economy. Trade would suffer, the ruble would take a hit. The 2008 war with Georgia is a bad historical comparison, as Ukraine’s territory, population and military are much larger. Invasion would harm Russia’s international standing. Putin doesn’t want to spoil his upcoming G8 summit, or his good press from Sochi. Putin would rather let the new government in Kiev humiliate itself with incompetence than give it an enemy to rally against. Crimea’s Tartars and other anti-Russian ethnic minorities wouldn’t stand for it. Headlines like “Why Russia Won’t Invade Ukraine,” “No, Russia Will Not Intervene in Ukraine,” and “5 Reasons for Everyone to Calm Down About Crimea” weren’t hard to find in our most eminent publications.

Nobody, including us, is infallible about the future. Giving the public your best thoughts about where things are headed is all a poor pundit (or government analyst) can do. But this massive intellectual breakdown has a lot to do with a common American mindset that is especially built into our intellectual and chattering classes. Well educated, successful and reasonably liberal minded Americans find it very hard to believe that other people actually see the world in different ways. They can see that Vladimir Putin is not a stupid man and that many of his Russian officials are sophisticated and seasoned observers of the world scene. American experts and academics assume that smart people everywhere must want the same things and reach the same conclusions about the way the world works.

How many times did foolishly confident American experts and officials come out with some variant of the phrase “We all share a common interest in a stable and prosperous Ukraine.” We may think that’s true, but Putin doesn’t.

We blame this in part on the absence of true intellectual and ideological diversity in so much of the academy, the policy world and the mainstream media. Most college kids at good schools today know many more people from different races and cultural groups than their grandparents did, but they are much less exposed to people who think outside the left-liberal box. How many faithful New York Times readers have no idea what American conservatives think, much less how Russian oligarchs do? Well bred and well read Americans live in an ideological and cultural cocoon and this makes them fatally slow to understand the very different motivations that animate actors ranging from the Tea Party to the Kremlin to, dare we say it, the Supreme Leader and Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

How Far Backward Is Turkey Sliding?

MARCH 3, 2014

The Turkish political scene has been rocked by accusations of corruption since December 2013, when a number of people, including government officials and private citizens close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, were arrested as part of a crackdown on graft. Meanwhile, the Erdoğan-led government is enacting policies that degrade rule of law in the country, with sudden policy shifts in the judiciary and the intelligence service, as well as an ongoing clampdown on media and individual freedoms.

The government’s response to the accusations of corruption has been so severe that it has been seen as an attempt to cover up unpleasant realities. Ultimately, it is the sign of a fierce battle that Prime Minister Erdoğan is waging to retain his power. The crisis is likely to deepen in the run-up to critical elections in 2014—local elections in March and a presidential vote in August.

But the implications of this crisis reach beyond ballot-box politics. Turkey’s domestic tumult is threatening the country’s economic and international interests. After twelve years of unprecedented political stability and economic progress, new political uncertainties have led to a deterioration in the country’s financial ranking and currency and have dented Turkey’s international standing. The frequent allegations and momentous revelations of corruption have added uncertainty to the politics and economics of a country that had become a symbol of progress to many observers.

With a deepening of the crisis likely unavoidable, the citizens of Turkey are not the only ones at risk. External players, first and foremost the European Union, have much to worry about, too.


In domestic political terms, there are several possible paths Turkey could follow. In the first scenario, Prime Minister Erdoğan becomes Turkey’s next president in August’s election. If that happens, he will have the same limited powers as the current president, Abdullah Gül—but with major differences.

The new president will be the first to be directly elected, so he will have an extra layer of legitimacy. Given Prime Minister Erdoğan’s personality, he will likely bring his forceful, vocal political style to the presidency. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will almost certainly use some of the powers that Abdullah Gül has refrained from using, for example chairing weekly meetings of the Turkish cabinet, which will allow him to micromanage the government’s affairs. And, logically, to achieve that aim, President Erdoğan is bound to choose an obedient prime minister.

Ukraine: "Rhetoric Is Not Policy"

March 3, 2014

Over at The New Republic, TNI publisher Dimitri K. Simes blasts the Obama administration's handling of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine:

We are speaking very loudly. We are carrying a small stick....We are acting like King Lear. We are issuing pathetic declarations which nobody is taking seriously. When I saw Secretary Kerry on television yesterday, I think it was a very sad performance. He was visibly angry. He was visibly defensive. He was accusing Russians using very harsh language of violations of international law. His description of the political process in Ukraine which led to this situation was incomplete and disingenuous at best. And then, after he said all of these things, he did not say, “Well, because of the Russians violating international law, threatening international security, that because of that the President of the United States is moving our naval assets in the Black Sea!” With the language he was using, that’s what you would expect him to do.

Simes also analyzes Russia's decision to invade:

Even at the end of the week before last when Putin was still preoccupied with the Olympics, they were having meetings in Moscow, senior government officials would come and they would not be able to find any kind of solution that would look acceptable to them. The decision clearly was made after the Olympics, it was made by Putin, and I think it was a combination of two things: one was that Putin found himself under pressure to do something. Clearly the way this whole process played in Ukraine was directed against Russian influence. He is a charismatic leader, he is a proud nationalist, his constituency in Russia expects him to respond. What was happening in Ukraine, along with the way that Putin’s government and Putin personally were treated by the Obama administration and European leaders, put considerable pressure on him to do something.

Simes lays out what U.S. interests he sees at stake in the conflict—it's far less about who controls the Crimean peninsula than about feeding an increasingly common narrative of American indifference:

Putin's Crimean Crime

Roger Cohen
MARCH 3, 2014 

For Vladimir Putin the break-up of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Everyone has something that makes them tick. Putin’s obsession is the restoration of Russia’s pride through the restoration of its imperium.

The Russian seizure of control of the Crimean Peninsula, a clear violation of the very international law Putin likes to invoke, has turned Ukraine into a European tinderbox. Sarajevo and the Sudetenland: Europe’s ghosts hover. Putin argues he is protecting Russian-speakers from the usurpers of Kiev, a pro-European government seen in Moscow as the undercover agents of a predatory West whose talk of liberty is mere camouflage for the advance of its interests.

This is baloney, a “trumped-up” Russian case, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s phrase.

It is worth recalling that the catalyst for this crisis was not proposed Ukrainian membership in the European Union. It was not proposed Ukrainian membership in NATO. It was not some threat to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. It was, in its infinite banality, a planned trade agreement between Kiev and the European Union.

This was the minnow Putin inflated into a whale through his attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into rejection of the deal, a course the Russian president had followed with equal imperial vehemence elsewhere in Russia’s near-abroad. On this occasion, however, the people rose up, forcing Ukraine’s bungling, sybaritic, trigger-happy president, Viktor Yanukovych, into flight and the arms of his Russian patron.

Putin’s Crimean message to President Obama and the West is clear: Not one inch further. After NATO’s expansion into the Baltic states (and how critical NATO’s protection looks now to Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia), after the European Union’s embrace of the likes of Poland and Romania (freed, like the Baltic states, from the Soviet empire), after the humbling by NATO of Serbia (Russia’s Orthodox ally), after the West’s perceived manipulation of a United Nations mandate to have its way in Libya — after all this the Russian president, as he has already made clear in Syria, is saying: “Game over.”

But this is no game. Putin’s obsession with a 20th-century order, with turning back the clock to before the “catastrophe,” blinds him to the passionate attachment to their nationhood of states liberated from stifling Soviet subjection. There is a grotesque amnesia to Russia’s Ukrainian gambit.

From Ukraine With Love: 4 Lessons for Geopolitics

Here are four lessons Asia watchers should learn from the events unfolding in the Ukraine. 

March 04, 2014

As events unfold in Ukraine we are all reminded once more that neither geopolitics nor the challenges of history are dead and buried in Europe. While numerous foreign policy experts seemed content to write off the continent as beyond great power rivalry or naked power politics, the events of the last several days prove otherwise. In fact, with Russian moves into the Crimea it seems Europe is destined for a perilous predicament the likes of which have not been seen since the days of the Cold War.

Ukraine, a nation referred to by Samuel P. Huntington as a “cleft country with two distinct cultures” that serves as a “civilizational fault line between the West and Orthodoxy” seems destined to draw away much needed attention from matters in the Indo-Pacific world, and rightly so considering the stakes. Yet over the long term the rise of China, issues of trade and economics, territorial claims and counterclaims as well as America’s stake in the region will continue to be a global focus no matter the crisis of the day. Asia hands here in D.C. and around the world can draw some valuable lessons from the Ukraine crisis. Here are four as I see them:

1. Be mindful on those big, sweeping, foreign policy declarations, like a “Pivot”: It seems no matter how much Washington wants to make that big pivot/rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific, current events seem to get in the way. Last summer it was Syria. Now it’s Ukraine. Clearly Washington is very plugged into events in Asia, and has never left, contrary to what others may say. Yet the pivot seems to have lost its way thanks to a lack of military resources, American domestic political drama, and budding international hot spots that seem to shift the focus. The pivot, one of the great bumper sticker foreign policies if there ever was one, seems to suffer from what can only be seen as self-created, high expectations. Instead of backing off or lessening such expectations, the administration in some respects seems to be feeding them. Take for example comments just last November from National Security Advisor Susan Rice, in which she declared the“rebalancing toward the Asia Pacific remains a cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. No matter how many hotspots emerge elsewhere, we will continue to deepen our enduring commitment to this critical region.”

Can the pivot maintain its focus in this and future administrations considering the many challenges around the world Washington is constantly being asked to manage? My heart says yes, but my mind says stay tuned.

China Backs Russia on Ukraine

Despite its principle of non-interference, domestic and international interests have Beijing siding with Moscow. 

March 04, 2014

Chinese media has covered the evolving situation in Ukraine with interest, in part because China has avested interest in Ukraine’s fate. Now, the world is returning the scrutiny. In the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send troops to the Crimean Peninsula, it seems the world is taking sides on the Ukrainian issue. And everyone wants to know where China stands—one of the perils of being a major power.

On Sunday, after the Russian Federation Council authorized the use of armed forces in Ukraine, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang issued a special statement on the situation. “China is deeply concerned about the current situation in Ukraine,” Qin said. He called on “the relevant parties in Ukraine to resolve their internal disputes peacefully within the legal framework.” As for external interference in the Ukraine, Qin emphasized that China respects “the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” and said that a solution should be found “based on respect for international law and norms.”

However, Qin also cryptically said that “there are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today.” Qin didn’t go into detail about what those reasons might be, but Chinese media sources offered some suggestions. A Xinhua commentary argued that the West’s “biased mediation has polarized Ukraine and only made things worse in the country.” The article said that the West should work together with Russia to find a solution, and “stop trying to exclude Russia from the political crisis they failed to mediate.”

Further, the Xinhua commentary had no criticism for Russia’s decision to send troops to Crimea. “It is quite understandable when Putin said his country retained the right to protect its interests and Russian-speakers living in Ukraine,” the commentary said. Rather than opposing the move, the West should “respect Russia’s unique role in mapping out the future of Ukraine.”

The Global Times took a realist (and cynical) view of the situation, arguing that “the Ukrainian situation shows us clearly that in the international political arena, principles are decided by power.” The article argued that the Ukrainian opposition and the pro-Yanukovych, pro-Russian elements both only seem to gain legitimacy after they are able to assert their dominance. The article came to a rather strange conclusion: comparing the situation in the Ukraine to the “double standards” Washington applies to U.S.-China relations. “There is no logic” in those arguments (presumably referring to U.S. human rights critiques of China), “only that the U.S. is still the more powerful player.”